SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Humans > Vietnam Chapter
"The Vietnam Memorial" From
Volume 2 of The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
"Sawyer takes on guns, religious assumptions, automobiles, and even the Big
Bang in this highly entertaining tale of a (more or less) rational
Outsider. The chapter at the Vietnam Wall should be required reading for
anyone who wishes to sit in the oval office."
"We've only got one day here in Washington before the conference
begins," said Mary, "and there's so much I want to show you. But
I wanted to start with this. Nothing else says more about this
country, and about what it means to be human my kind of
Ponter looked at the strange vista in front of him, not
understanding. There was a scar in the grass-covered landscape,
a deep welt that ran for eighty paces then met, at an obtuse
angle, another similar scar.
The scars were black and reflective a ... what was
that word again? An ox-uh-mor-on, that was it; a
contradiction in terms. Black, meaning it absorbed all light;
reflective, meaning it bounced light back.
And yet that's precisely what it was, a black mirror, reflecting
Ponter's face, and Mary's, too. Two kinds of humanity not
just female and male, but two separate species, two different
iterations of the human theme. Her reflection showed what she
called a Homo sapiens and he called a Gliksin: her
strange upright forehead, minuscule nose, and there was no
word in Ponter's language for it her chin.
And his reflection showed what she called a Homo
neanderthalensis and he called a Barast, the word for
"human" in his language: a Neanderthal's broad countenance, with
a doubly arched browridge and a proper-sized nose extending
across a third of his face.
"What is it?" asked Ponter, staring at the oblong blackness, at
"It's a memorial," said Mary. She looked away from the black
wall and waved her hand at objects in the distance. "This whole
mall is filled with memorials. The pair of walls here point at
two of the most important ones. That spire is the Washington
Monument, a memorial to the first U.S. president. Over there,
that's the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the president who
freed the slaves."
Ponter's translator bleeped.
Mary let out a sigh. Evidently there was still more complexity,
more what had she called it? more dirty linen to be
"We'll visit both those memorials later," said Mary. "But, as I
said, I wanted to start here. This is the Vietnam Veterans
"Vietnam is one of your nations, is it not?" said Ponter.
Mary nodded. "In southeast Asia southeast Galasoy. Just
north of the equator. An S-shaped bit of land" she drew
the letter with a finger in the air so that Ponter would
understand "on the Pacific seaboard."
"We call the same place Holtanatan. But on my version of Earth
it is very hot, very humid, rainy, full of swamps, and overrun by
insects. No one lives there."
Mary lifted her eyebrows. "Over eighty million people live there
in this reality."
Ponter shook his head. The humans of this version of Earth were
so ... so unrestrained.
"And," continued Mary, "a war was fought there."
"Over what? Over swamps?"
Mary closed her eyes. "Over ideology. Remember I told you about
the Cold War? This was part of that but this part was
"Hot?" Ponter shook his head. "You are not referring to
temperature, are you?"
"No. Hot. As in a shooting war. As in people died."
Ponter frowned. "How many people?"
"In total, from all sides? No one really knows. Over a million
of the local South Vietnamese. Somewhere between half a million
and a million North Vietnamese. Plus ..." She gestured at
"Yes?" said Ponter, still baffled by the reflecting blackness.
"Plus fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and nine Americans.
These two walls commemorate them."
"Commemorate them how?"
"See the writing engraved in the black granite?"
"Those are names names of the confirmed dead, and of those
missing in action who never came home." Mary paused. "The war
ended in 1975."
"But this is the year you reckon as" and Ponter named it.
Ponter looked down. "I do not think the missing are coming
home." He moved closer to the wall. "How are the names
"Chronologically. By date of death."
Ponter looked at the names, all in what he'd learned were known
as capital letters, a small mark a bullet, isn't that what
they called it, one of their many words that served double duty?
separating each name from the next.
Ponter couldn't read English characters; he was only beginning to
grasp this strange notion of a phonetic alphabet. Mary moved in
beside him, and, in a soft voice, read some of the names to him.
"Mike A. Maksin. Bruce J. Moran. Bobbie Joe Mounts.
Raymond D. McGlothin." She pointed at another line,
apparently chosen at random. "Samuel F. Hollifield, Jr.
Rufus Hood. James M. Inman. David L. Johnson.
Arnoldo L. Carrillo."
And another line, farther down: "Donney L. Jackson.
Bobby W. Jobe. Bobby Ray Jones. Halcott P.
"Fifty-eight thousand of them," said Ponter, his voice as soft as
"But but you said these are dead Americans?"
"What were they doing fighting a war half a world away?"
"They were helping the South Vietnamese. See, in 1954, Vietnam
had been divided into two halves, North Vietnam and South
Vietnam, as part of a peace agreement, each with its own kind of
government. Two years later, in 1956, there were to be free
elections throughout both halves, supervised by an international
committee, to unify Vietnam under a single, popularly elected
government. But when 1956 rolled around, the leader of South
Vietnam refused to hold the scheduled elections."
"You taught me much about this country, the United States, when
we visited Philadelphia," said Ponter. "I know how highly
Americans value democracy. Let me guess: the United States sent
troops to force South Vietnam to participate in the promised
But Mary shook her head. "No, no, the United States supported
the South's desire not to hold the election."
"But why? Was the government in the North corrupt?"
"No," said Mary. "No, it was reasonably honest and kind
at least up until when the promised election, which it wanted,
was canceled. But there was a corrupt government
the one in the South."
Ponter shook his head, baffled. "But you said that the South was
the one the Americans were supporting."
"That's right. See, the government in the South was corrupt, but
capitalist; it shared the American economic system. The one in
the north was Communist; it used the economic system of the
Soviet Union and China. But the northern government was much
more popular than the corrupt southern one. The United States
feared that if free elections were held, the Communists would win
and control all of Vietnam, which in turn, would lead to other
countries in southeast Galasoy falling to Communist rule."
"And so American soldiers were sent there?"
"Many did, yes." Mary paused. "That's what I wanted you to
understand: how important principles are to us. We will die to
defend an ideology, die to support a cause." She pointed at the
wall. "These people here, these fifty-eight thousand people,
fought for what they believed in. They were told to go to war,
told to save a weaker people from what was held to be the great
Communist threat, and they did so. Most of them were young
eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years. For many,
it was their first time away from home."
"And now they are dead."
Mary nodded. "But not forgotten. We remember them here." She
pointed discreetly. Ponter's guards now members of the
FBI, arranged by Jock Krieger were keeping people away
from him, but the walls were long, so incredibly long, and
farther down someone was leaning up against the black surface.
"See that man there?" asked Mary. "He's using a pencil and a
piece of paper to make a rubbing of the name of someone he knew.
He's well, he looks in his midfifties, no? He might have
been in Vietnam himself. The name he's copying might be that of
a buddy he lost over there."
Ponter and Mary watched silently as the man finished what he was
doing. And then the man folded the piece of paper, placed it in
his breast pocket, and began to speak.
Ponter shook his head slightly in confusion. He gestured at the
Companion embedded in his own left forearm. "I thought you
people did not have telecommunications implants."
"We don't," said Mary.
"But I do not see any external receiver, any what do you
call it? any cell phone."
"That's right," said Mary gently.
"Then who is he talking to?"
Mary lifted her shoulders slightly. "His lost comrade."
"But that person is dead."
"One cannot talk to the dead," said Ponter.
Mary gestured at the wall again, its obsidian surface pantomiming
the sweep of her arm. "People think they can. They say they
feel closest to them here."
"Is this where the remains of the dead are stored?"
"What? No, no, no."
"Then I "
"It's the names," said Mary, sounding somewhat
exasperated. "The names. The names are here, and we connect
with people through their names."
Ponter frowned. "I forgive me, I do not mean to be
stupid. Surely that cannot be right, though. We my
people connect through faces. There are countless people
whose faces I know but whose names I have never learned. And,
well, I connect with you, and although I know your name, I cannot
articulate it or even think it clearly. Mare that is the
best I can do."
"We think names are ..." Mary lifted her shoulders,
apparently acknowledging how ridiculous what she was saying must
sound "... are magical."
"But," said Ponter again, "you cannot communicate with the dead."
He wasn't trying to be stubborn; really, he wasn't.
Mary closed her eyes for a moment, as if summoning inner strength
or, thought Ponter, as if communicating with someone
somewhere else. "I know your people do not believe in an
afterlife," said Mary, at last.
"`Afterlife,'" said Ponter, serving up the word as though it were
a choice gobbet of meat. "An oxymoron."
"Not to us," said Mary. And then, more emphatically, "Not to
me." She looked around. At first Ponter thought it was simply
an externalization of her thoughts; he presumed she was seeking
some way to explain what she was feeling. But then her eyes
lighted on something, and she started walking. Ponter followed
"Do you see these flowers?" said Mary.
He nodded. "Of course."
"They were left here, by one of the living, for one of the dead.
Somebody whose name is on this panel." She pointed at the
section of polished granite in front of her.
Mary bent low. The flowers red roses still had
long stems, and were bundled together by string. A small card
was attached to the bundle with a ribbon. "`For Willie,'" said
Mary, evidently reading from the card, "`from his loving
"Ah," said Ponter, having no better response at hand.
Mary walked farther. She came to a fawn-colored sheet of paper
leaning against the wall, and picked it up. "`Dear Carl,'" she
read. She paused, and searched the panel in front of her. "This
must be him," she said, reaching forward and lightly touching a
name. "Carl Bowen." She continued to look at the incised name.
"This one is for you, Carl," she said apparently her own
words, since she wasn't looking down at the sheet. She then
lowered her eyes and read aloud, starting over at the beginning:
I know I should have come here earlier. I wanted to. Honest,
I did. But I didn't know how you would take the news. I know I
was your first love, and you were mine, and no summer has been as
wonderful for me as that summer of '66. I thought of you every
day you were gone, and when word came that you had died, I cried
and cried, and I'm crying again now as I write these words.
I don't want you to think I ever stopped mourning you, because
I didn't. But I did go on with life. I married Bucky Samuels.
Remember him? From Eastside? We've got two kids, both older now
than you were when you died.
You wouldn't recognize me, I don't think. My hair has got
some gray in it, which I try to hide, and I lost all my freckles
long ago, but I still think of you. I love Buck very much, but I
love you, too ... and I know someday, we'll see each other
"`See each other again'?" repeated Ponter. "But he is dead."
Mary nodded. "She means, she'll see him when she dies, too."
Ponter frowned. Mary walked a few steps farther along. Another
letter was leaning against the wall, this one laminated in clear
plastic. She picked it up. "`Dear Frankie,'" she began. She
scanned the wall in front of her. "Here he is," she said.
"Franklin T. Mullens III." She read the letter aloud:
They say a parent shouldn't outlive a child, but who expects a
child to be taken when he's only 19? I miss you every day, and
so does your pa. You know him he tries to be strong in
front of me, but I hear him crying softly to this day when he
thinks I'm asleep.
A mother's job is to look after her son, and I did the best I
could. But now God Himself is looking after you, and I know you
are safe in his loving arms.
We will be together again, my darling son.
Ponter didn't know what to say. The sentiments were so obviously
sincere, but ... but they were irrational. Couldn't
Mary see that? Couldn't the people who wrote these letters see
Mary continued to read to him from letters and cards and plaques
and scrolls that had been left leaning against the wall. Phrases
stuck in Ponter's mind.
"We know God is taking care of you ..."
"I long for that day when we will all be together again ..."
"So much forgotten / So much unsaid / But I promise to
tell you all / When we meet among the dead."
"Sleep now, beloved ..."
"I look forward to when we are reunited ..."
"... on that wonderful day when the Lord will reunite us in
"Goodbye God be with ye! until we meet
"Take care, bro. I'll visit you again next time I'm in
"Rest in peace, my friend, rest in peace ..."
Mary had to pause several times to wipe away tears. Ponter felt
sad, too, and his eyes were likewise moist, but not, he
suspected, for the same reason. "It is always hard to have a
loved one die," said Ponter.
Mary nodded slightly.
"But ..." he continued, then fell silent.
"Yes?" Mary prodded.
"This memorial," said Ponter, sweeping his arm, taking in its two
great walls. "What is its purpose?"
Mary's eyebrows climbed again. "To honor the dead."
"Not all the dead," said Ponter, softly. "These are only
the Americans ..."
"Well, yes," said Mary. "It's a monument to the sacrifice made
by American soldiers, a way for the people of the United States
to show that they appreciate them."
"Appreciated," said Ponter.
Mary looked confused.
"Is my translator malfunctioning?" asked Ponter. "You can
appreciate present tense what still exists; you can
only have appreciated past tense that which is no
Mary sighed, clearly not wishing to debate the point.
"But you have not answered my question," said Ponter, gently.
"What is this memorial for?"
"I told you. To honor the dead."
"No, no," said Ponter. "That may be an incidental effect, I
grant you. But surely the purpose of the designer "
"Maya Ying Lin," said Mary.
"Maya Ying Lin. That's the name of the woman who designed this."
"Ah," said Ponter. "Well, surely her purpose the purpose
of anyone who designs a memorial is to make sure people
"Yes?" said Mary, sounding irritated by whatever picayune
distinction she felt Ponter was making.
"And the reason to not forget the past," said Ponter, "is so that
the same mistakes can be avoided."
"Well, yes, of course," said Mary.
"So has this memorial served its purpose? Has the same mistake
the mistake that led to all these young people dying
been avoided since?"
Mary thought for a time, then shook her head. "I suppose not.
Wars are still fought, and "
"By America? By the people who built this monument?"
"Yes," said Mary.
"Economics. Ideology. And ..."
Mary lifted her shoulders. "Revenge. Getting even."
"When this country decides to go to war, where is the war
"Um, in the Congress. I'll show you the building later."
"Can this memorial be seen from there?"
"This one? No, I don't think so."
"They should do it right here," said Ponter, flatly. "Their
leader the president, no? he should declare war
right here, standing in front of these fifty-eight thousand, two
hundred and nine names. Surely that should be the purpose
of such a memorial: if a leader can stand and look at the names
of all those who died a previous time a president declared war
and still call for young people to go off and be killed in
another war, then perhaps the war is worth fighting."
Mary tilted her head to one side but said nothing.
"After all, you said you fight to preserve your most fundamental
"That's the ideal, yes," said Mary.
"But this war this war in Vietnam. You said it was to
support a corrupt government, to prevent elections from being
"Well, yes, in a way."
"In Philadelphia you showed me where and how this country began.
Is not the United States's most cherished belief that of
democracy, of the will of the people being heard and done?"
"But then surely they should have fought a war to ensure that
that ideal was upheld. To have gone to Vietnam to make sure the
people there had a chance to vote would have been an American
ideal. And if the Vietnam people ..."
"As you say. If they had chosen the Communist system by vote,
then the American ideal of democracy would have been served.
Surely you cannot hold democracy dear only when the vote goes the
way you wish it would."
"Maybe you're right," said Mary. "A great many people thought
the American involvement in Vietnam was wrong. They called it a
"Umm, an insult to God."
Ponter rolled his eyebrow up his browridge. "From what I have
seen, this God of yours must have a thick skin."
Mary tilted her head, conceding the point.
"You have told me," said Ponter, "that the majority of people in
this country are Christians, like you, is that not so?"
"How big a majority?"
"Big," said Mary. "I was actually reading up on this when I
moved down here. The U.S. has a population of about 270
million." Ponter had heard this figure before, so its vastness
didn't startle him this time. "About a million are atheists
they don't believe in God at all. Another twenty-five
million are nonreligious; that is, they don't adhere to any
particular faith. All the other faith groups combined
Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus add up to about 15
million. Everyone else almost 240 million say they
"So this is a Christian country," said Ponter.
"Welllll, like my home country of Canada," said Mary, "the U.S.
prides itself on its tolerance of a variety of beliefs."
Ponter waved a hand dismissively. "Two hundred and forty million
out of two hundred and seventy million is almost ninety percent;
it is a Christian country. And you and others have told
me the core beliefs of Christians. What did Christ say about
those who would attack you?"
"The Sermon on the Mount," said Mary. She closed her eyes,
presumably to aid her remembering. "`Ye have heard that it hath
been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say
unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee
on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.'"
"So revenge has no place in the policies of a Christian nation,"
said Ponter. "And yet you say that is a reason it fights wars.
Likewise, impeding the free choice of a foreign country should
have had no place in the policies of a democratic nation, and yet
it fought this war in Vietnam."
Mary said nothing.
"Do you not see?" said Ponter. "That is what this
memorial, this Vietnam veterans' wall, should serve as a reminder
of: the pointlessness of death, the error the
grave error, if I may attempt my own play on words in your
language of declaring a war in contravention of your most
dearly held principles."
Mary was still silent.
"That is the reason why future American wars should be declared
here right here. Only if the cause stands the test
of supporting the most dearly held fundamental principles, then
perhaps it is a war that should be fought." Ponter let
his eyes run over the wall again, over the black reflection.
Mary said nothing.
"Still," said Ponter, "let me make a simpler proposition. Those
letters you read they are, I presume, typical?"
Mary nodded. "Ones like them are left here every day."
"But do you not see the problem? There is an underlying belief
in those letters that the dead are not really dead. `God is
taking care of you.' `We will all be together again.' `I know
you are watching over me.' `Someday I will see you again.'"
"We've been down this road before," said Mary. "My kind of
humanity not just Christians, but most Homo
sapiens, no matter what their particular religion
believe that the essence of a person does not end with the death
of the body. The soul lives on."
"And that belief," said Ponter firmly, "is the problem. I have
thought this since you first told me of it, but it is what
do you say? it is driven home for me here, at this
memorial, this wall of names."
"Yes?" said Mary.
"They are dead. They are eliminated. They no longer
exist." He reached forward and touched a name he could not read.
"The person who was named this." He touched another. "And the
person who was named this." And he touched a third. "And the
person who had this name. They are no more. Surely
facing that is the real lesson of this wall. One cannot come
here to speak with the dead, for the dead are dead. One
cannot come here to beg forgiveness from the dead, for the dead
are dead. One cannot come here to be touched by the dead,
for the dead are dead. These names, these characters
carved in stone that is all that is left of them.
Surely that is the message of this wall, the lesson to be
learned. As long as your people keep thinking that this life is
prologue, that more is to come after it, that those wronged here
will be rewarded in some there yet to come, you will
continue to undervalue life, and you will continue to send young
people off to die."
Mary took a deep breath and let it out slowly, apparently
composing herself. She gestured with a movement of her head.
Ponter turned to look. Another person a gray-haired man
was placing a letter of his own in front of the wall.
"Could you tell him?" asked Mary, speaking sharply. "Tell him
that he's wasting his time? Or that woman, over there the
one on her knees, praying? Could you tell her? Disabuse her of
her delusion? The belief that somewhere their loved ones still
exist gives them comfort."
Ponter shook his head. "That belief is what caused this
to happen. The only way to honor the dead is by ensuring that no
more enter that state prematurely."
Mary sounded angry. "All right, then. Go tell them."
Ponter turned and looked at the Gliksins and their ebony
reflections in the wall. His people almost never took human
lives, and Mary's people did it on such large scales, with such
frequency. Surely this belief in God and an afterlife had to be
linked to their readiness to kill.
He took a step forward, but ...
But, right now, these people did not look vicious, did not look
bloodthirsty, did not look ready to kill. Right now, they looked
sad, so incredibly sad.
Mary was still upset with him. "Go on," she said, gesturing with
a hand. "What's the holdup? Go tell them."
Ponter thought about how sad he himself had been when Klast had
died. And yet ...
And yet, these people these strange, strange Gliksins
were taking some comfort from their beliefs. He stared at
the individuals by the wall, kept away from him by armed agents.
No, no, he would not tell these mourners that their loved ones
were truly gone. After all, it wasn't these sad people who had
sent them off to die.
Ponter turned toward Mary. "I understand the belief provides
comfort, but ..." He shook his head. "But how do you break
out of the cycle? God making killing palatable, God providing
comfort after the killing is done. How do you keep from
repeating it over and over again?"
"I have no idea," said Mary.
"You must do something," Ponter said.
"I do," said Mary. "I pray."
Ponter looked at her, looked back at the mourners, then turned
once more to Mary, and he let his head hang, staring down at the
ground in front of him, unable to face her or the thousands of
names. "If I thought there was the slightest possibility it
would work," he said softly, "I would join you."
An excerpt from Humans by
Robert J. Sawyer.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer.
All rights reserved.
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